At a dinner party, a wine snob complained about ethyl acetate in the bottle I had purchased. What is that all about?
Strictly speaking, ethyl acetate is a fault. The telltale sign is the piercing smell of nail-polish remover. It’s derived from acetic acid and alcohol, the former being responsible for the sharp smell of vinegar, which you’ll also find in some flawed wines. Ethyl acetate belongs to the chemical category known as esters, which are used in a range of products from perfumes to plastics. In wine, it’s produced by yeasts under certain conditions, such as when fermentation temperatures are less than ideal or when sulphur dioxide is present in levels insufficient to stop microbial growth.
Certain strains of wild yeasts are particularly talented at producing high concentrations of ethyl acetate. This may explain why that “natural” chardonnay pushed on you by an enthusiastic wine-bar sommelier can taste as though the grapes had been crushed by dirty toes soaked in Cutex.
But ethyl acetate is not always unpleasant in wine, or, for that matter, beer. In concentrations slightly above the human perception threshold of about 12 milligrams per litre, it can impart a pleasant character, accentuating a wine’s fruitiness. In beer, it can suggest fruitiness even when there’s no fruit in the beer, and that’s often a tasty thing. But in concentrations exceeding about 150 mg/L, it tends to emerge as a decidedly chemical odour.
So, yes, your dinner-party guest probably was not off-base in raising a stink about the wine, unless the wine was in fact clean and she had merely raised the glass to her lips too soon after a trip to the nail salon.
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